Restaurant Renaissance: Houma, Thibodaux enjoying new eateries

Girl’s ‘Wish’ comes true
March 12, 2013
Locals placed onto board
March 12, 2013

Three popular restaurant chains are seriously considering opening in Houma, potentially adding to an ongoing string of local dining growth, according to an economic development official helping broker the deals.

Steve Vassallo, CEO of the Terrebonne Economic Development Authority, declined to name the franchised chains. Two are in the process of negotiating site locations, possibly in one of three strip-mall facilities under construction in the area, he said.

“We’ve been working that side of the street pretty intensely now for months,” Vassallo said of new restaurant business. “We’re hopeful and optimistic that we’re going to have a breakthrough on one of those real soon.”

If realized, the new restaurants would complement a trend backed by a spate of high-profile, branded openings throughout the Houma-Thibodaux area within the last year: Moe’s Southwest Grill, Rotolo’s Pizza and Bayeaux DJons in Houma and Griffin’s Poboy & Grille and Santa Fe Cattle Company in Thibodaux.

Confirmed, planned franchise openings within the next two months include Twin Peaks on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and New York Bagel Café and Deli on Barrow Street.

“This is definitely something we’ve been seeing all across the state, specifically in southern Louisiana, over maybe the past three years,” Erica Papillion, director of communications for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, said of chain restaurant openings.

Motivating factors on the local level for recent restaurant development center around a culture that enjoys dining out, which has sustained the anchored chains in the area, and two nearby colleges that provide a part-time workforce to fill the jobs, Vassallo said. It doesn’t hurt that the local economy, driven by the recovering oil-and-gas industry, largely repelled the national recession and boasts an unemployment rate envied by much of the nation, according to Papillion.

“Traditionally, southern Louisiana has kind of been reticent to accept national chains, but that has also changed, as well,” said Papillion, adding that chains understand that they can only compete with local, independent establishments if they take responsibility of trying to further the community and offer local flavor on the menu.

Leadership at both Twin Peaks and New York Bagel said the decision to open was based on bringing variety to the scene, and their differing missions offer a glimpse of the untapped potential in the area.

The bagel shop, a few blocks from Main Street, aims to compete with Subway and Café Dominique in the downtown Houma breakfast market.

“We were looking for something different to do,” said Tracy Hebert, a co-owner. Hebert said her business partner Sonya Ohlmeyer decided on New York Bagel for a franchise after frequenting a similar – but differently branded – restaurant in Baton Rouge.

Hebert said she hopes the restaurant will open within the next six weeks, following completed renovation of the former business office, the passing of inspection and completion of legally required training.

When complete, the café will offer 17-20 variations of the bagel – jalapeño, blueberry, Asiago cheese and French toast, for starters – in addition to paninis, wraps, salads and a bagel burger for lunch, Hebert said. It will be open for breakfast and lunch, and smoothies will be sold throughout the day.

“We’re thinking of bringing some local flavor,” Hebert said. “They have a set menu, but they let us add items to it.”

Located near a hospital, the parish government building and the courthouse, Houma’s first bagel café will have a large pool of diners to appease.

“For the past 10 years I’ve worked downtown, and there’s really nothing downtown since we lost The Lunch Basket for breakfast,” Hebert said. “The only thing downtown right now is Subway, for breakfast.”

In the city’s commercial hub, Twin Peaks hopes to draw from the sports-bar market once it opens April 29. Roland Vincifora, the site’s general manger, touted 29-degree Fahrenheit draft beer, home-cooked food and, of course, the all-female staff.

“It’s a brand-new, fresh concept,” Vincifora said. “It is, for the lack of a better word, the only gig in town.”

On its menu, Twin Peaks offers steak, chicken, shrimp and hamburgers to go along with appetizers like bratwurst, cheese sticks, chili and quesadillas. The guy-cave setting will also be decked out with flat screen televisions. “It’s things that actually go well with this Houma market area,” Vincifora said.

The Brechtel Hospitality Group owns the Houma Twin Peaks, which will be located inside the former Ryan’s Steakhouse building. Prior to announcing this location, the group owned franchise rights to all of southeastern Louisiana.

“They are from the Covington-New Orleans area,” Vincifora said. “They could have went anywhere in the southeast region of New Orleans, but they chose Houma because they did a little market research and it’s what Houma is looking for at this point.”

Not all of the local restaurant development is tagged by tried-and-true brands.

White Bowl, co-owned by three locals and slated to open this month, will offer Vietnamese-styled dishes from its Enterprise Drive location.

Logan Landry, an owner alongside Gary Blanchard and Bing Tran, said ongoing expansion of dining options is welcome in a region he described as lacking variety.

“Houma, considering the population of Terrebonne Parish, really doesn’t have that many restaurants, and most of what we do have is just very repetitive –Cajun restaurant after Cajun restaurant after wing shop and wing this and wing that. Everything is the same; there is just not a lot of variety.”

In that vein, after long wanting to open a restaurant, he corroborated with the owner of Bing Cherry Frozen Yogurt and another partner to establish the area’s first Vietnamese diner.

“Vietnamese food right now is really, really popular on a nationwide level,” Landry said. “It’s kind of what sushi was 10 years ago. It’s kind of the cool thing to go eat because it’s culturally different but still healthy, and Houma doesn’t have one.”

White Bowl, also co-owned by Gary Blanchard and Bing Tran, will have a 60-guest capacity. The menu, which Landry said is moderately priced, will consist of a variety of grilled meats served with steamed rice, fresh vegetables and spring rolls.

“Tho is the most common Vietnamese dish, their famous soup,” Landry said. “You can get it with different meats and you can add your own spices and fresh herbs.”

Off the Hook in Thibodaux – fast fried seafood and chicken strips – and Pierre’s in Morgan City – an upscale establishment – also opened within the last year as independents.

Vassallo said the success of established chains in the area has caught the eye of prospects, pointing to nightly lines at dine-in chains Outback Steakhouse, Chili’s and Applebee’s. As for the increased focus on drawing more restaurants to the area, he said it’s about quality of life.

“We want our citizens not to have any reason to leave here and go out of town for dinner,” Vassallo said. “We have enough of a variety and enough choices here for people to stay here comfortably.”

Frankie Guidry, a contractor with Darryl Hebert Builder, carries a baseboard outside New York Bagel Café and Deli. Renovations to the former office building on Barrow Street in Houma continue, and the restaurant is tentatively scheduled to open within six weeks.